Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Wired News: Government Prying, the Good Kind

This Wired article, and similar coverage in the CHE and other newpapers, caught my eye this morning because of what isn't being noticed here. The stories unveil a new Web-based system that tracks and shares information about government programs and politicians:

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab unveiled the Government Information Awareness, or GIA, website Friday. Using applications developed at the Media Lab, GIA collects and collates information about government programs, plans and politicians from the general public and numerous online sources. Currently the database contains information on more than 3,000 public figures.

The premise of GIA is that if the government has a right to know personal details about citizens, then citizens have a right to similar information about the government.

The site does sound useful, especially as we think about our students researching public policy issues and historical/political questions:

GIA allows people to explore data, track events, find patterns and build profiles related to specific government officials or political issues. Information about campaign finance, corporate ties and even religion and schooling can be accessed easily. Real-time alerts can be generated when news of interest is breaking.

I can imagine a number of uses for the program in the writing classroom. Students can use the database to research background on issues they're writing about in persuasive papers or to find more detail for informative pieces. In fact, the database could be the target for student writing. Students could research a particular issue and post their findings in the database—an assignment that seems more useful than writing book reviews for the Amazon site.

The problem with the site is that it's couched in patriotic language that hides some major assumptions about the resource. About half-way through the article, which began with an ode to Thomas Jefferson, I read, "'Only by employing such technologies can we hope to have a government by the people and for the people,' McKinley said." And, a little further down, the piece states:

"History shows that when information is concentrated in the hands of an elite, democracy suffers," said Csikszentmihályi. "The writers of the Constitution told us that if people mean to be their own governors, they must arm themselves with information. This project brings that American spirit of self-governance into the era of networked information technology."

It's not that I disagree with these sentiments. I'm all for the ability of citizens to learn more about their government. What bothers me is the assertion that by putting this resource online, we bring might to the hands of an entire democracy. That seems like the same logic that created a national no-call system that you couldn't sign up for by telephone: Oh, just put it online. Everyone can get to it then.

GIA is certainly a great resource for the writing classroom. Loads of resource readily available, and students don't even have to go to the library, if they have a computer and access to the Internet. Of course, we know that not every student has access. Hmm. Maybe I should reconsider. Perhaps a better writing assignment regarding GIA would be to look at who is empowered—and who is still left without the ability to find data or voice an opinion.